Plastics: too valuable to waste?

Anton Hanekom, executive director of Plastics SA, maintains that the solution to the plastic waste problem in South Africa lies in addressing careless models of consumption and embracing recycling as the method of disposal.

Each year, people around the world are encouraged to refuse single-use plastics as part of Plastic Free July. According to the organisers of the campaign, the aim is to see a world without plastic waste. Plastics SA and the global plastics industry, however, have been advocating and working towards these same goals for the past 25 years.

“We are the first to recoil at the sight of plastic garbage littering our beaches and roadsides, or waving from branches of trees and shrubs. Our message has always been – and will continue to be – that plastics are valuable. We have been working relentlessly to raise awareness of the dangers of plastic pollution as part of our drive to see a world without plastic waste,” says Anton Hanekom, executive director of Plastics SA.

Hanekom says it would be impossible for the 7,5-billion people living on the planet today to live a normal life without plastics – regardless of whether or not they are conscious of this. “Plastic is an integral part of our modern lifestyle. Strong and versatile, plastic exists because we want convenience at a low price. It keeps our food fresh, ensures food safety and provides tamper-proof medications…

“If we were to remove plastic from our lives, we would have to get rid of almost everything we wear, live in, or work with. The challenge lies in preventing plastic from ending up in the environment after it has been used, and making sure that it is properly discarded, so that it can be recycled into a multitude of different new products,” he says.

Hanekom adds that, as an industry body, Plastics SA does not believe that fighting for the survival of plastics and fighting for the protection of the environment are necessarily at odds with each other. Rather, he believes that both can flourish and support each other without putting at risk the jobs of more than 60 000 South Africans employed by the plastics industry, posing a danger to marine life or disfiguring our natural environment.

“During 2018, South Africa converted more than 1,8-million tonnes of polymer into plastic products. During the same year, recycled plastic waste tonnages increased by 12,2 percent – giving the country a collection rate of 46,3 percent and making us a world leader in mechanical recycling.  More should be done to reduce the impact of plastics on the environment. We could start by improving waste infrastructure so that more waste is recovered,” Hanekom says.

Considering the large variety of clamshells, tubs, bowls and trays that retailers and restaurants use to package food, fruit and vegetables, the industry is urging consumers and policymakers to take cognisance of the fact that most of these products are made of sturdy, excellent-quality plastics that can be used repeatedly if collected and recycled.

The South African regulated 24-micron retail plastic bag is also not considered a single-use product by Sustento, consultants to the Department of Environmental, Fisheries and Forestry, since the thickness of the bags exceeds that of most other countries, where the range is between 12 and 17 microns. This means that locally manufactured bags can be repurposed and reused several times in most households for primary (shopping) and secondary uses (storing food or household items, carrying picnic lunches or for sanitary purposes.)

“To date, the fillers in plastic carrier bags have been removed, producing fully recyclable plastic bags. In some cases, 100-percent certified recycled plastic material is used, making them even more recyclable and creating a win-win situation for the environment,” Hanekom explains.

Despite the harsh criticism it has had to endure over recent years, plastic continues to expand its applications in terms of variety and volume – and researchers are starting to change their anti-plastic messages. Almost weekly, new research challenges the benefits of banning plastics. A recent study published by the University of Plymouth’s International Marine Litter Research Unit found that biodegradable plastics rarely break down fully in marine environments, and warned that labelling them as such could even encourage people to take littering less seriously.

Similarly, a study by Denmark’s Ministry of Environment and Food found that classic plastic shopping bags have a minimal environmental impact compared to that of a conventional cotton bag. Cotton bags, they found, have to be re-used 7 100 times to have the same cumulative environmental impact as using classic plastic bags which are easy to manufacture, require very little energy and emit very little carbon dioxide.

“We believe that the time has come to acknowledge plastics as the environmental hero that it is, instead of the environmental villain it is made out to be. As waste collection improves, we see improved recovery models and the development of a circular economy. The solution lies in addressing our wasteful model of consumption by changing negligent human behaviour and embracing recycling. All it takes is a little willpower from everybody concerned,” Hanekom says.

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